October 17, 2013
If there were ever a Michael Jordan of the inventor’s world, it would be Sir James Dyson. The billionaire founder of Dyson Industries, best known as the father of the Dyson bagless vacuum cleaner, has also over the years introduced a 10-second instant hand dryer and a bladeless fan. In many ways, he brings a sleek and innovative Steve Jobs-esque design sensibility to common appliances.
Not too long ago, Sir James started the annual Dyson awards, an international competition that “celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers.” Along with a smaller competition on the national level in Britain, aspiring inventors can also submit entries for a chance to win nearly $48,000. The winner will be announced on November 7, 2013.
Here are a few notable ideas that have been shortlisted as finalists for this year’s honors:
Titan Arm (USA)
This entry from the United States will appeal to fans of Iron Man. The Titan Arm is the end result of impressive efforts by students at the University of Pennsylvania to piece together an inter-working system of motors, cables, sensors and other inexpensive parts to produce an upper-body exoskeleton that enables the wearer to lift an extra 40 pounds beyond what natural strength can achieve. The team hopes the device can be used to prevent injuries to workers required to do heavy lifting as well as assist those undergoing physical therapy. Titan Arm has already claimed top prize in the Cornell Cup USA engineering competition, sponsored by Intel.
OLTU Fruit Ripening Unit (Spain)
Sure you have your banana hangers, but the art of ripening fruit will take a lot more ingenuity in order to be perfected. That’s where the OLTU comes in. The ripening storage unit siphons power from your refrigerator to help create the ideal atmospheric conditions for various fruits and vegetables to uniformly reach this peak state. The container features four sections, each with different settings, such as cold dry, cold wet, fresh wet and dry warm, tailored to specific varieties.
So you can’t stand waking up to the roar of your neighbor’s lawnmower but would still appreciate hearing the song of a chirping bird during the early mornings? The Sono is a simple device that attaches to windows and works as a lounge bouncer of sorts for sounds that pass through from outside. The ring design enables the system to detect the tone of various kinds of sounds, and using Wi-Fi, lets users set the SONO to block certain frequencies while allowing others.
Stack Printer (Switzerland)
With productivity devices these days, portable and mobile has become the way to go. Meanwhile, printers seem to be stuck at the office. Mugi Yamamoto doesn’t think this necessarily needs to be the case and has taken the minimalist approach as far as he it can go in developing the Stack printer. The industrial designer’s version of a slimmed-down inkjet removes the standard plastic paper tray and keeps the product to its bare essentials like the ink cartridge, the print head and frame for alignment. It works simply by placing it on top of a stack of papers and letting it run its course. Judging by the latest prototype, the Stack still wouldn’t fit into a briefcase. A backpack though? Now we’re talking.
The Xarius can aptly be described as wind power that fits in your pocket. And just as fitting, it’s designed to re-charge and power portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. The internal power generator relies on a cleverly designed three-winged mini wind turbine that efficiently captures energy in remote places off the grid, such as camping grounds; it is also perfect for getaways off the coast. The generator is even efficient enough to capture energy at low wind speeds.
Check out the complete list of finalists!
September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 21, 2011
I once made a loan to Solyndra
And suddenly I found
How hideous a loan can be.”
–Sung to the melody of “Maria” from West Side Story
Okay, that’s not quite how Stephen Sondheim wrote it, but as company names go, Solyndra is a pretty sweet sound. Until a few weeks ago. Now it’s the dirtiest word in the clean energy business. It’s also a sure bet that Barack Obama doesn’t break into song when he thinks about it. On the last day of August, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,100 workers and walked away from a $535 million government loan.
A quick refresher: Solyndra was a California outfit that devised an innovative solar panel and the first renewable energy firm to land a big loan guarantee from Department of Energy as part of the 2009 stimulus package. President Obama hailed it as one of the companies “leading the way toward a brighter, more prosperous future.”
A week ago there was another public event in Washington that kinda got lost amid the Solyndra swirl. Big-name CEOs—Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, Xerox’ Ursula Burns, to name a few—said the federal government needs to continue investing in research to develop energy sources because most companies no longer are willing to sink money into ventures that may not pay off for years and years.
It’s a forward-thinking sentiment, but what we don’t know, and won’t for awhile, is whether it will survive the Solyndra stigma.
That said, there’s still an unusual collection of big players placing bets on renewable energy. Among them:
- The U.S. military: Last month the Marines invited 13 companies to a base in the California desert to pitch their ideas for solar products and energy efficiency on the battlefield. The Army, meanwhile, is encouraging private companies to build large solar energy projects on land owned by the military, with the hope of eventually cutting its energy costs. And while not funded by the military, another project called SolarStrong will use a $344 million federal loan guarantee to install solar panels on up to 160,000 rooftops at 124 military bases.
- Google: The sultan of search is still saying it hopes to one day make renewable energy cheaper than coal. Last spring it announced a $168 million investment in the giant Ivanpah solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert. A week later it promised to pump $100 million into the country’s largest wind farm, being built in Oregon. Google has even used its flair for analytics to figure out how to make the solar panels on its own buildings twice as efficient.
- Samsung: Early this year the South Korean high-tech giant committed to spending many boatloads of money—almost $7 billion—to build wind turbine and solar module manufacturing plants in Ontario, Canada.
- China: Big surprise, right? It now manufactures 40 percent of the solar panels produced in the world and had $48.9 billion in renewable energy investments last year—almost double the U.S. total. It also now has twice as much installed renewable energy capacity as the U.S. And Chinese companies keep looking for investment opportunities in America. Yesterday the Xinjiang Goldwind Science and Technology Company announced that it will spend $200 million to build a wind farm in Illinois.
A Mightier Wind
Wind power, meanwhile, has managed to stay out of the headlines. But recently there was news from Japan about a new kind of turbine that could be a game-changer. Called a wind lens, it encircles the turbine blades with a brim. Its inventor says it can generate two to three times more energy than the conventional model.
Bonus: Have you hugged an infographic today? Here’s your chance.